The New York Times
By: Andrew Keh
December 15, 2010
In February, Evelyn De La Cruz slipped on a patch of ice on the sidewalk and felt a sharp pain in her left ankle.
She told herself that it did not hurt, that it was not a big deal.
She could not afford for it to be a big deal.
But the next morning, it was clear something was wrong.
"I was hysterically crying, because while I had all this pain, all I could think of was time off from work without pay," Ms. De La Cruz said in an interview at her apartment in Rockaway Beach, Queens. "And, oh my God, that was even more painful."
Ms. De La Cruz, 50, is one of an untold number of Americans whose lives fell into disarray at the start of the current recession, one of a legion of New Yorkers who had been living comfortably for years, until suddenly, shockingly, they were not.
The worst has passed, she said, but the experiences are raw in her mind.
Ms. De La Cruz's troubles began in January 2009, when she lost her job as an executive assistant at Planned Parenthood. "I never saw it coming," she said.
A severance package and weekly unemployment checks helped, but they were barely enough for her to pay the $1,600 rent on her apartment and support her daughter Erica, 20, the youngest of her three children.
Falling behind on her rent and desperate for work, Ms. De La Cruz applied for more than 200 jobs. Three companies called her for interviews; none panned out.
"With the stress, I started not being able to sleep at night," she said. Doubts about her ability to get a job crept into her mind. "That brought me so much fear, the thought that as I get older, it was getting more difficult to find a job, that the skills, maybe, are not there."
Ms. De La Cruz's luck turned late that summer when, out of the blue, one of her old bosses offered her a job at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, where her ex-boss was working. Ms. De La Cruz accepted the job and carefully began saving her money. By winter, although she was still a month behind on her rent, it seemed as if that weight could soon be lifted from her shoulders.
Then came that patch of ice.
The day after Ms. De La Cruz fell, she learned that she had broken her ankle and would require surgery. The rehabilitation kept her out of work for six weeks; during that time, her only income was the $170 she received each week in disability payments.
After being so close to paying off her debts, she fell even further behind on her rent, and in March, her landlord gave her an eviction notice. She was given until April to pay $3,830 in rent arrears.
The thought of losing the apartment where she had lived for six years rattled her. She realized she had become deeply attached to the beach, which had calmed her in her most anxious moments. "I love Rockaway," she said. "I love my apartment. I could not imagine moving from here."
Ms. De La Cruz was referred to Margert Community Corporation, a housing counseling agency that helped her procure grants of $2,440 from the Bridge Fund of New York City and $1,000 from the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, one of the seven organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund.
Ms. De La Cruz was able to pay the overdue rent and remain in the apartment, where she hopes to stay for years to come.
She is back at work now, trying to save, still living check to check. But her experience, humbling and harrowing as it was, also reassured her about what might come.
"I was a little embarrassed that I had to do this," Ms. De La Cruz said of seeking assistance. "But I was also comforted, in a way, knowing that even in this economy there are still people and organizations that are trying to help."